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Hands-on: Ubisoft's Rocksmith lets you use your own guitar in music video game

Not every game teaches you something. But after you play Ubisoft‘s Rocksmith, you’ll be on your way to learning how to play the electric guitar. That’s a promise that games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band never fulfilled.

If Ubisoft succeeds with the title when it launches this fall, the French game publisher could revive the dying music game business. The crash of music games has been astounding, but a revival could lift the entire sector back into the fast-growth mode it hasn’t seen in years.

Music games started a wild ride with the launch of Guitar Hero in 2005. The game, where users played a faux guitar to match the rhythm of music on the screen, was an instant hit. Made on a budget of just $1 million, the title helped music games overtake sports as a game category in 2008. The category grew past $2 billion in the U.S. in 2008, but Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts and MTV milked the genre with one Guitar Hero and Rock Band title after another.

Gamers tired of the sequels, and by 2009, the genre began to collapse, with sales falling to $1 billion. In 2010, music game sales fell below $400 million, according to analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan. In February, the market got so weak that Activision Blizzard announced it was shutting its music game division, laying off hundreds of employees and canceling all further Guitar Hero games.

But Ubisoft has been bravely moving into music because it caught the shift from guitars to dance. Ubisoft scored its first big dance hit in November, 2009, with Just Dance for the Wii. The game sold more than 4 million units. In 2010, Ubisoft came back with Just Dance 2, which sold more than 5 million units. MTV launched for the Kinect. And Ubisoft scored another big hit with the Michael Jackson game on the Wii last November. It also launched a Kinect version of the Michael Jackson game in April.

All this suggests that Rocksmith has a chance to find a real audience. Ubisoft is showing off more of its Rocksmith video game for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC at the E3 show this week in Los Angeles. The company will show off Rocksmith in a touring van outside the Los Angeles Convention Center, as it did at South by Southwest (pictured right) earlier this year.

“It’s new and fresh and it’s not just another shooter game,” said Laurent Detoc, president of Ubisoft North America. “Here, you are playing with a real guitar for real and you can play it with any guitar you want. I can’t think of a better game than Rocksmith where you walk away from it having learned how to do something.”

I had a look at the game with a real guitar for a short time. My 11-year-old doesn’t get excited about new versions of Rock Band or Guitar Hero. But she perked up when she found out that Rocksmith used a real guitar. We set it up and found that it was pretty easy to mess around with it. It was annoying that we had to tune the guitar every time we started up a song. But I’d chalk that up as a bug that can be fixed before the launch.

The game is easy to start playing. You hit the string and hold down strings when prompted to do so as the notes come down rhythm bar, much like in Guitar Hero. It’s easier to learn on simple songs that don’t use many different strings.

But we needed a way to step into the learning process. You can do a tutorial for each song in the initial set we saw. So you pretty much learn to play the guitar by learning one song at a time, practicing it over and over. You won’t learn the guitar in just one sitting.

We’ll see how well Ubisoft does at bringing along people who have never held a guitar in their hands before. That was easy to do with the simple controls of the Guitar Hero games, but it’s an entirely different thing with a real guitar. I look forward to testing this one more.

Still, this could be dangerous turf. Seven45 Studios launched Powergig: Rise of the SixString last fall, using a near-real six-string guitar and a simulated drum set. The game scored horrible reviews on Metacritic, the review aggregator, with an average of 36 out of 100. The guitar part of the game worked okay, but not the drums. Hopefully, Rocksmith will fare better.


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